Alfie Boe: 'It's delightful to be back and settled as a family in England'
PUBLISHED: 16:07 12 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:07 12 April 2019
Alfie Boe? In the Kitchen in Minchinhampton? Well, who can resist moving to the Cotswolds…And who can resist Alfie Boe, car welder-turned-international opera star, who's determined to give other talented singers an equally fighting chance
I’m not talking opera-style stories. I’m not talking stories so dramatic that an overwhelmed audience is forced to twist away from the stage, like Orpheus leading Euridice from the Underworld. Not like the stories that come with shivers of horror, as when dissolute Don Giovanni is dragged to hell. Or even stories that tear at your heart, like love-blinded José tearing with his dagger at Carmen’s soft breast.
I’m actually talking about a friend of mine, who calls and excitedly says, “Did you know Alfie Boe has moved to Stroud!”
She saw him, she says, in the Kitchen (a café in Minchinhampton). “He was with his wife and children, so I went up and said, ‘Are you Alfie Boe?’”
Oooh, I think. Good luck with that. (Man out enjoying quiet coffee with family.)
“Actually,” she says, “he shook my hand. He was the one who offered his hand to me.”
Story Number Two involves me calling up Alfie Boe for an interview. His “Hello” sounds slightly woebegone. Slightly harassed.
“It’s been a bit crazy. I’m with my kids.
[Oh, yes! Half term.]
“My wife has got a lunch date. But no, no, no – it’s fine! I’ll be home in about an hour. Would we be able to chat then?”
And I like that.
You picture Alfie Boe on stage at the packed O2 – the injustice-hating Jean Valjean – singing Bring Him Home to an emotional crowd of 19,000. You picture him joshing with his mate Matt Lucas. (Do ‘YouTube’ the clips; they’re hilarious). Or with Renée Fleming on a balcony at Buckingham Palace (first time non-royals had been granted that elevated status), giving an entranced world Somewhere at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert.
What you don’t do is picture him having a quiet family cuppa in the Kitchen in Minch. Or wrestling with kids and shopping (or whatever) while his wife is out on a lunch-date.
The story of Alfie Boe is so extraordinary, it’s nice to find a bit of ordinary lurking in there.
Alfie Boe has been pumping out Puccini’s Tosca – speakers on top whack – at his rented house on the outskirts of Amberley.
I’m pretty sure: a) the neighbours are fine with that; b) Alfie’s windows are hermetically sealed; and c) I know he’s about to move anyway. (Still locally. Bit more on that shortly.)
“It’s an opera I’m going to be doing in a couple of years’ time at the Albert Hall. I’m still partaking in opera and I’m really thrilled I can do that. But I do enjoy other types of music, too.”
Go on then, Alfie. Throw me something out of left field.
“Gracie!” he shouts to his 10-year-old, who has educated him in Taylor Swift (alongside other names more obscure to dads). “What’s that group you told me about last night?”
“Imagine Dragons,” Gracie calls back.
“That’s one of her favourite bands. I’ve been listening to them and they’re really good. Gracie started off with some poppy stuff and it has developed over the years she’s been listening to music. So she’s cultivating her own interest in it.”
Not so different from the young Alfie, then, who grew up listening to a range of music as wide as the Irish Sea that washes around his hometown of Fleetwood. Church music was a big childhood influence (he was named Alfred Giovanni Roncalli Boe in deference to Pope John the 23rd), heard at least three times a week, from Friday night mass to Sunday benediction. (His lovely mum used to read him Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – complete with eye-gouging and fingernail-removing – as a bedtime story… until a young Alfie pointed out it might possibly be the cause of his nightmares.)
There was dance music that provided the background to his parents meeting, quickstepping at the Marine Hall in Fleetwood.
There was Mull of Kintyre that his would mum beg him to sing as she fried huge slabs of cod brought round for dinner by Uncle Chas the fish merchant.
His dad – whom Alfie misses like a physical ache – never stopped singing or playing Robeson, Doonican, Caruso and Rebroff (“this German nutcase with a crazy, crazy voice”) on the turntable. Alfie’s brother Joe – Alfie’s the youngest of nine – was into Elvis; another brother, Michael, first played La Bohème to him.
Yet his school wouldn’t allow him to take music, because he didn’t play the piano or violin. (“The amount of times I wanted to burn that school down.”)
When Alfie left – after just one year in sixth-form college – his choices were as stark as for any Fleetwood teen: fisherman; army; or local industry. Which is how he became a welder in a car-body workshop.
A bit different for your kids, I suggest. For Gracie and seven-year-old Alfie, currently enjoying a more-than-decent school, horse-riding and walks on a boundless, spring-orchid-strewn common.
“Absolutely,” he agrees, clearly made up about that.
As a family, they’ve lived all over – in the States, close to Sarah’s (his American wife’s) family, when he was working on Broadway; a stint in London; and now the Cotswolds.
For no other reason than that they love it here.
“We’ve got friends close to Nailsworth and Minchinhampton, who told us, ‘We’ve got a great school here our kids go to. And we can literally set you up with 10 couples who can automatically start being friends.’”
Parachuted into a new life!
“Yeah – and it’s been beautiful. We’ve made those friends. We’re going to that wonderful school. And we’re thrilled. It’s absolutely delightful to be back and settled as a family in a beautiful part of England.”
Somewhere he can finally call home?
“We’ve been renting a house close to Amberley for about six or seven months, but we’ve found a house to buy. So we’ve literally bought our first house here and we’re moving in next week.”
There’s something else I haven’t mentioned yet that joins the dots. That (kind of) mirrors Alfie’s story of discovery; and then forms an arrow straight back to Stroud.
First things first, though.
The précised version of how a car-welding lad from Fleetwood became an international star – high-fived by Baz Luhrmann and Cameron Mackintosh as the best tenor in a generation – is this. As he wielded a blow-torch (NB I’m guessing it would be a blow-torch; I’m not good on technicalities), a customer overheard him singing and pointed him in the direction of a London audition. And – high drama, operatic moment – he got the part.
(As ever, the reality is a bit more complex; but that will do.)
What that story left Alfie Boe with is this. A frustration, at times (nowadays he wouldn’t term it anger) with the more po-faced elements of the opera world. And, on a positive front, a determination that everyone, no matter what their background, should be given a chance.
“There’s room for us all,” as he puts it.
He got an opportunity to demonstrate that last October – literally to put his money where his highly talented mouth is – on Paddington Station. He’d been doing some hectic work in London – dashing about all over the show – before being dropped off to catch a train back home to Gloucestershire.
“And as I walked down onto the concourse, I heard this music. I thought: Is that coming from a restaurant speaker? And I tried to find it. And then I thought: No, I know! That’s live music! That’s beautiful. Absolutely amazing.”
It was a busker, quietly getting her guitar to soar alongside her pure, strong voice; conjuring up young love, English hills, and faithful dogs whose friendship transcends time and space.
“So I eventually found the location of this mysterious voice and I looked and it was Hattie Briggs. And I thought, Wow! I mean, she was so talented. Her voice was incredible; her playing was incredible. I stood there for about 10 minutes.”
Did Hattie know who it was, the dark stranger quietly listening? (I’m guessing she knew exactly who it was.)
“And I thought: Do you know what? I’m going to do this! I’m going to give someone else an opportunity to achieve. She deserves more than busking in Paddington Station. So,” he pauses, in obvious delight…
“…she’ll be playing the Royal Albert Hall on April 17.”
Alfie didn’t even know, as he listened, that this girl – this 25-year-old woman with the easy manner and the boho style – started off busking at Stroud Farmers’ Market, a couple of miles down the road from where she lived.
“Didn’t have a clue. This neck of the woods as well! Ironic, that.”
So, Hattie will be supporting Alfie on his forthcoming tour, including a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Fairytales all round.
There was something in it for Alfie, too. For years, he’s been wrestled into suits and instructed on what he should and shouldn’t say. When he told Kirsty Young that he couldn’t sit through an opera he wasn’t singing in, the opprobrium was startling. Honesty isn’t always the best policy.
But more frustrating than that, he hasn’t always had a say on his support act. Hasn’t always had a say on other artistic decisions.
Times are changing.
It was a brave choice to bring a busker onto stage-centre. Had to justify it to all sorts of people.
But it reminds me of something Alfie once said about opera in Italy; about how it’s not so much some highfalutin art-form as part of street culture. Is that what he’s trying to do? To bring all types of music into the everyday?
“You’ve hit the nail on the head.
“I’ve made two albums of Italian folk songs. And with those albums, I really wanted to use street musicians; people that had this music in their blood. It was a little tricky finding those guys but I found a bunch of musicians who could play that style and really play that style well. And I was thrilled with those guys…
“Unfortunately, when you work for certain people, other people have input and other people have ideas and other people have opinions on how you should come across as an artist; and that frustrates me.
“And sometimes the projects get taken away and down a different road; and that can be heart-breaking to a performer and to an artist who’s trying to achieve something.”
Yeah. I can imagine.
But what’s he saying? Where is that music coming from in a street performer? What’s the truth Alfie Boe finds in that sort of music?
“Folk songs are songs that parents have sung to their kids constantly, throughout their lives. They’re pop songs, basically. If you have an Irish mother, you’ll get Take Me Home Again, Kathleen sung to you more times than I could imagine.”
He pauses, trying – I’m guessing – to balance diplomacy with that frustration.
“And, I suppose, when you get an opera singer to embrace those songs, there are two ways of doing it. You can either play it with a guitarist, a violin, a guy on an old drum kit with a double-bass player and an accordion. Or you can put a full 250-piece orchestra behind it.
“But I can guarantee that Pavarotti first heard those songs sung by his parents or sung by a guy in the street.”
He’s doing something similar on his latest album – As Time Goes By; embracing the earthy New Orleans vibe of music of the 1930s. The freedom, the experimentation, the rebelliousness of that period.
Ain’t Misbehavin. Mood Indigo. I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.
“To show how rootsy that music is; how earthy it is. Take it back to New Orleans speakeasies, into Harlem dance halls in New York…”
The sound is spot on. (Nick Patrick, the producer, has been a cast-iron ally.)
What Alfie Boe is shying away from is the dichotomy of that rebelliousness set against the look of the album: smart dinner suit, slicked back hair, and a backdrop of beautiful London ballroom.
“But when you see me live, it’s going to be a very different approach than what the album looks like.”
You’ve got a great choice of venue to see Alfie live. But take my advice and, whatever tickets you buy, throw in a couple for Cornbury Festival this summer. Cornbury, over in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds.
Bit of a change for him, this?
“Yeah. I’ve never done Cornbury Festival before. I’m really looking forward to it, partly because I know Hugh Phillimore [the festival man himself]. Our kids go to the same school…
“But the other thing I’m looking forward to is that I’m on at the same night as the Beach Boys!”
Not the first time, is it?
“No, no, it’s not. And Mike Love is one of my good friends; he’s the voice of Good Vibrations. They’re a lovely bunch of guys. I’m hopefully going to get up to join them for a song.”
Wild Honey would be his choice – a real rocker.
So let’s ask this. What would 16-year-old Alfie think of his future self, sharing a stage with the Beach Boys? The boy, destined to be a welder; the boy who’d ride his bike up and down Fleetwood’s beach, up to Blackpool, with his headphones on listening to Good Vibrations and California Girls.
Alfie Boe grins. “He’d collapse. Faint probably.”
Yep. Another of those moments when real life vies with high operatic drama.
For the full list of tour dates, visit alfie-boe.com.